|The sound of the snake's rattle startled man and horse alike. Diamond reared, nearly knocking Alan from the saddle. He didn't know whether to be angrier at the horse or himself.|
"Easy boy," he murmured, patting the horse's neck. Pulling the reins left, he nudged Diamond gently. Making a wide circle around the rattlesnake, the horse and rider continued down the trail. Alan knew peace here in the mountains, more than he had experienced in years. Lost in thought, he considered his life. Diamond knew the way back to the cabin. Alan's mind drifted into memory, some good, some not so good.
Born in a small town in southeast Georgia, Alan had always been an outdoors kind of guy. He rode well. He loved hunting and fishing. His Dad took Alan and his brothers deer hunting every year, and then the family spent at least a week at the lake house, swimming, fishing, and playing games. Those had been good years.
His senior year in high school had been a joyful one. He and all his friends had looked forward to the "freedom" they would soon have... and then 9/11 happened, and everyone's world was turned upside down. Alan, and his best friend Todd, secretly planned to join the Army as soon as they graduated. They knew their parents would never approve if they told them now.
Diamond stopped, and Alan looked up, surprised. How in the hell had they gone all the way to the cabin without his noticing? Chuckling to himself, he patted the horse on the neck as he swung his leg over the saddle and stepped down.
Throwing an arm under Diamond's neck, he pulled the horse's head close and hugged him tightly. "Come on, boy. Let's get this saddle off and rub you down.
Guiding the horse into the small corral, he stopped at the trough and let Diamond drink his fill. Finally leading him into the small barn, Alan removed the horse's tack and began the long but somewhat soothing task of grooming his horse. Starting near his head, he worked his way down. Adjusting to the slow rhythm of the strokes, his mind began to wander again.
Alan went to enlist two weeks after graduation. Man, that had been a fight for the record books. His Mom pleaded with him, and his Dad said he wouldn't allow it. Alan smiled at the memory. He stood his ground, and they relented. There was nothing they could do to stop him.
His best friend, Todd Chambers, enlisted simultaneously; both applied and were accepted into the Army Rangers. Posted in the same unit after graduation, they soon deployed to Afghanistan. The next six months progressed at a frenetic pace - in processing, briefings, training, and more training. His unit was assigned a few patrols, but they were just preparatory. The platoon leader, Lt. Jackson, had just briefed the squad leaders that the team would be deploying to Iraq. Operation Phantom Fury was about to start. They were going to help take Fallujah from the Insurgents once and for all.
His platoon had been inserted in the far northern corner of the city. Their objective: head southwest toward the railway station. Take it and hold it, preventing its use as an escape route once the heavy attack starts. Not far from the station, they received incoming fire.
"Yes, sir," Alan answered.
"Take Second squad and cover the two-story building on the left. Dobson, Taylor! Take First and Third Squads. The building on the right, directly across from Second Squad's target - clear the building!"
Alan moved his squad into position and waited. It had not gone as Lt. Jackson planned.
Alan signaled they were in place and ready. Jackson gave the go sign, and 1st Squad charged through the doorway. An explosion immediately rocked the building. Alan's squad took fire from its rooftop.
"Find cover!" Alan yelled as he scrambled to the left, seeking cover behind a low rock wall about ten yards away. The rest of his squad followed him. The gunfire tracked him as he ran, spurring him to more incredible speed. Reaching the wall, Alan jumped. Todd landed beside him within seconds, scrambling to put his back against the wall. Another explosion rocked the air. Heavy gunfire sounded around them.
"Where are the others?" Alan asked.
"There is no one else behind me," Todd said. His face was oddly devoid of expression.
"Jenkins, Roberts... Collins too?"
Todd said nothing. Quickly raising his head above the wall, Alan scanned the area from left to right and then ducked back down.
"It's bad," he said. "Jenkins, Roberts, and Collins didn't make it ten feet. There are bodies in the doorway across the street. The Third squad is down too, and maybe some of the 5th."
"They were waiting for us," Todd growled.
"It appears so. We'll let the Major know if we get out of here." Sporadic gunfire still sounded around them.
"We need to get over there. I need to see if Jackson is ok. If he isn't, I will gather what's left, and we will fight our way out of here." Once again, Todd said nothing.
Concerned, Alan asked, "You ok. Bud?"
Todd looked at him and said, "Let's go."
"Ok," Alan replied. "I surveyed the area as we walked in. If we circle behind this building and turn right, then right again, we will come out over there," Alan said, pointing to the street on the right of the other building. "From there, we should be able to make it to the door without being seen. When we enter, I will clear to the left; you clear right."
When Todd nodded, he continued. "If we reach a "T" intersection, same deal. I will quarter left, you quarter right. Let's go."
Low walking around the building, they were soon positioned within the alley. Alan raised his hand and counted off 1, 2, 3... and they cautiously entered the building. The hallway beyond the door was littered with bodies, both soldier and insurgent alike. A room opened on each side of the hall about 10 feet away. Clearing first one and then the other side, they moved on. The hallway branched to the right and the left about fifteen feet from where they stood. Alan nodded at Todd, and they continued.
Stopping the brush on Diamond's flank, he rested his chin on his forearm. Crystal clear, the scene flashed behind his eyes in slow motion. Alan remembered the stifling heat. He was scared, no doubt. But they had to eliminate whoever was left in here if they were to escape.
Alan heard a shout behind him. Turning to look back, he noticed movement in a room just to the right. A shot rang out. The bullet hit him in the thigh, and he went down. Cursing in pain, he fired back, killing the man who shot him. Gunfire and shouts erupted behind him. Turning his head, he looked for Todd but saw nothing. Was that Todd shouting?
Another shadow loomed as a second insurgent charged him. Alan raised his M4. They both shot at the same time. Alan was hit in the shoulder. As he fell over, he saw that he had hit the insurgent in the throat. The man's eyes stared blankly at him. His last thought before losing consciousness was how irritating a dirty, sticky shirt felt against his skin.
Diamond whinnied, breaking his reverie. Alan finished his brushing and laid out a bucket of oats for the horse. Walking out of the small barn, he exited the corral and went into the cabin.
Hungry, he went to the fridge and took out the kielbasa. As an afterthought, he grabbed a beer as well. Walking to the pantry, he took out one large potato and walked to the counter beside the stove. Getting his cutting board and butcher knife, he sliced the kielbasa and tossed it into a pan with some butter and a little olive oil. It was cooked by the time he chopped the potato up into home fries. Scooping out the sausage, he added the potatoes to the pan.
Grabbing the beer, he took a long slow drink, relishing how the beer burned as it went down. Getting the spatula, he tuned the potatoes and sat down. Staring blankly into the living room, he slipped back into memory.
Alan woke ten days later at a hospital in Germany. He stared at the ceiling, not knowing where he was. Alan tried to talk but couldn't. The tube in his throat pained him, but his chest and leg hurt more. He moaned.
A nurse quickly appeared. "So, you're finally awake? Good, I'll get the doctor." Turning, she left. He fell asleep again before they returned.
Awaking suddenly, Alan tried to sit up and fell back in pain. Groaning, he growled, "What in the hell..."
"Please, lay back, Sgt. Shepard. You'll rip your stitches. You don't want to ruin your sister's visit, do you?"
"Jenny's coming here?" He croaked, his voice unused to speaking.
"Yes, she will be here tomorrow. You didn't know?"
"No," he croaked again.
"Let me get you some ice water. Then we'll see if we can get you sitting up." Leaving the room, he heard her calling for the doctor.
Alan got up and turned the potatoes one more time. "Another two minutes, and they will be done," he said as he took a plate from the cabinet beside the stove. After eating, Alan cleaned the dishes, grabbed his bottle of Four Roses with his favorite glass, and went outside to watch the sunset from his porch. Pouring himself a very generous shot, he sat... and thought.
Todd had gone crazy. Coming upon an Iraqi family in the large room at the end of the hall, he opened fire. Todd killed two men and three women, all non-combatants. Worst of all, he killed two children after finding them hiding in a closet. Todd got 25 years and a dishonorable discharge at his court-martial. The Staff Judge Advocate had tried to make the charges stick to Alan but had been unsuccessful. Alan was given a medical retirement and put out of the Army. He had not heard from Todd since.
That was seventeen years ago. Alan's Mom and Dad had died in a car accident while in the hospital. That is why Jenny had come to see him instead of them. Alan had not been able to go back to Georgia. He drifted from town to town, working odd jobs if he stayed long enough, living primarily off his pension. And then he found Cottonwood.
Sitting at the north end of the Verde River valley, Cottonwood offered a variety of activities, both in town and in small cities nearby. Though a tourist destination, it was still quite rural, boasting a wild-west vibe he grew to love. Alan used his time to visit ghost towns and explore abandoned silver mines. Surprisingly, he felt at home in Cottonwood and decided to stay, at least for a while.
The following day, Alan went to the Jerona Cafe for a bit of breakfast. Picking up a copy of the classifieds from a rack by the door, he looked for a place to rent. That's when he met Joe.
The old man had listed a cabin for rent. Nestled in a small box canyon near Clarkdale, the cabin sat on ten acres and included a small barn and corral. Alan felt at home as soon as he saw the place.
"Joe... say, what is your last name again?"
"Danville," the old man replied. "Joseph Danville at your service. Did you have a question?"
"I know this is sudden, but would you like to sell this place? I feel at home here. I would like to make that a reality."
Joe looked at him over the rim of his glasses. "Do you ride?"
"Yes," Alan replied. "Though it has been a while. "We make this deal, and I will buy a horse."
Joe looked him up and down, considering. "You a veteran?"
"Yes, Army Ranger, medically retired." Joe raised his eyebrows.
"I took a couple of hard shots in Fallujah." When he said nothing else, Joe nodded his head and turned around.
"I want $65,000," he said as he walked toward his truck. "Can you handle that?" At a nod from Alan, he continued. "Good. Do you know the stables just inside the park, on Dead Horse Ranch Road?" Alan nodded. "Yes? Good. Meet me there at 10 tomorrow morning. Millie, the owner's wife, is a realtor. She'll get this started for us."
"Oh yes, if you're interested, they have a couple of horses for sale. You never know..."
"In the morning then," Alan replied. Joe pulled away, and Alan turned a slow circle to take it all in, smiling. He felt... grounded. It had been a long time coming. He got into his own truck and headed back to town.
The following two months had flown by. The sale went smoothly, closing in just four weeks. Settling in had taken just as long. He bought Diamond from a rancher in Flagstaff, and the two settled into the quiet life of mountain living.
Joe and Alan became good friends. He reminded Alan of his father. They enjoyed the same things, and Joe loved being Alan's tour guide. They spent many a day exploring the mountains near the cabin in the saddle. One evening, relaxing on the porch after a long day's ride, Joe cleared his throat and looked at Alan intently.
"What is it," Alan asked.
Pausing as if coming to a decision, Joe reached into his vest and removed an old, folded piece of paper. Brown with age, he carefully unfolded it and sat it on the small table between them.
"Is that a map?" asked Alan.
"Yes," replied Joe, a severe look on his face. "It is a treasure map."
Alan looked on in shocked amazement. "Joe, I..."
"Just hear me out, Alan." At Alan's silence, he continued. "There is an opportunity here to get very rich, Alan."
Staring silently, he considered Joe's words. He would not speak of such a crazy thing unless he believed… something. Alan sat forward in his chair. "I'm listening."
Joe exhaled slowly. "Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in January 1848. In Perrysburg, a small town in southwest Ohio, Benjamin Barton decided to seek his fortune in the far west. Gold had been discovered in California, and he wanted his part of it. He was there before Christmas."
"Joe, are we going somewhere with is?"
Joe held up a hand. "Please bear with me. It helps to know the path it took for me to get here. Please…"
Alan nodded. "Mr. Barton was quite successful in finding his fortune. His claim played out well before most others, but he decided to stay in the area and opened a general store. In 1854 he met Josephine Martin. They were married in the following spring."
"I thought you said he had found his fortune?" Standing, Alan asked, "Do you want a beer?"
"He found it, alright. And yes, I will take a beer."
Returning quickly, Alan twisted the top and handed the beer to Joe. "And?"
"Josey, that's what Benjamin called her, figured all of his gold had gone to finance the store. He did not tell her how much he had made, and she never asked. They lived well, if not flashy, and she was content."
Alan listened intently. This was getting interesting.
"In late 1857, Benjamin noticed Josey had lost weight, and she always seemed tired. Despite her protests that all was well, she worsened. The local doctor said she had taken the consumption. That's what they called tuberculosis back then."
"Doc Holliday's disease, right?"
"Right," Joe paused. "Benjamin was crushed. He begged the doctor to do something, but there was no hope for her. Then the doctor told him there was supposed to be a doctor in Colorado working on a new treatment. That sparked a memory for Benjamin. Gold was discovered in… Denver? That was it. There was a new gold rush in Denver, Colorado. He then asked if this doctor was in Denver and was pleased to learn he was. That night he told Josey they were going to Denver to see a new doctor, one that could cure her. He sold the store, gathered their belongings in a wagon, and joined a wagon train to Denver.
They never made it. Traveling east out of southern California, the wagon train turned north in what is now central Arizona, heading toward Fort Verde to resupply. Josey died not long after they reached the fort. Not willing to leave, Benjamin stayed."
"I still don't see what this has to do with buried treasure Joe. How do you know so much detail? You still haven't mentioned any treasure.:
"I found the information in an old diary," Joe admitted.
"And you believe it?" Joe exclaimed!
"Alan, Benjamin Barton was my great grandfather."
"I found the diary in a box of stuff I took from my mother's house when she died. I didn't even look in the box for years. When I did, I found the story and this map. It was tucked into a pocket within the diary."
"Joe, I still don't see how…."
"Alan, listen. Ben Barton was not broke when he left California. He took $400,000 in gold with him. Josey didn't even know. He planned to tell her when they got to Denver, but she died before he could tell her. My great grandfather felt so much guilt he buried half of it somewhere near what is now Camp Verde. He must have been drunk when he wrote the clues and made the map. It is very cryptic.
Alan, I have been researching this for several; years. I think I know where it is, but I need someone I trust to help me. That someone is you. Alan, I need your help."
Alan sat in stunned silence, not knowing what to say.
"Alan, if he was telling the truth, there is about two million dollars buried out there, just waiting for us to dig it up."
Alan stood and started pacing. Stopping, he turned and regarded Joe thoughtfully. "And you're sure of this, one hundred percent sure?"
"One hundred percent."
"Then I'm in." Joe crossed to him, clasping his hand in a tight handshake.
"Great! I have some things to do before we go, and you need to prepare as well. I'll meet you at the café at 8am tomorrow to discuss plans. We can prep this weekend and head out Monday. You game?"
"Game? I'm stoked! Let's get another beer." Opening the screen door, they both headed into the cabin.